Healthcare.gov Woes Won't Get Quick Fix From an Army of Web Developers
The Healthcare.gov site is sickly and the administration is intent on marshaling a small army of techies to make it whole. This will not work. The only thing worse than a roomful of coders pounding away without direction, is an overflowing room of techies suddenly noticing that all the pizza is gone.
The Healthcare.gov Website is an ambitious attempt to mash-up a wide range of creaky databases, privacy-protected information and dress it up with the Expedia, Kayak, Amazon pricing and availability experience users have come to expect on the Web. It was indeed a bridge too far in terms of what could be achieved with the available time and technology. Flinging programmers at the problem will only exacerbate the issue.
That is the bad news. Here's what will happen. The federal government in particular already has one great example of an organization that is so confusing and impossible to avoid that it gave rise to an entire cottage industry. That organization would be called the Internal Revenue Service, which at last count figured the tax code, if printed, reached several feet in height and contained 3.7 million words.
As the IRS stated in a report on the complexity of the tax code, "If tax compliance were an industry, it would be one of the largest in the United States. To consume 7.6 billion hours, the 'tax industry' requires the equivalent of 3.8 million full-time workers." Total value of the tax compliance industry? That would be $193 billion in 2006. I doubt it has gone down since.
The complexity of the Healthcare.gov site might supersede the IRS. You know you are in a tough spot when President Barack Obama has to apologize for the site and the best advice Consumer Reports can offer is: "Stay away from Healthcare.gov for at least another month if you can. Hopefully that will be long enough for its software vendors to clean up the mess they've made. The coverage available through the marketplaces won't begin until Jan. 1, 2014, at the earliest, and you have until Dec. 15 to enroll if you need insurance that starts promptly."
When the Web first came to the consumer and corporate worlds, the techies in the backrooms knew that for the first time, the technology underpinnings of a company would suddenly become visible to all. If the corporate site went down or the wrong prices appeared on the ecommerce web or pages filled with misspellings or errors, they would be highly viewable by anyone with a browser.
Those old ERP projects which went on forever and consumed millions of dollars could be safely hidden in the budgets and the execs who instituted the projects were often long gone anyway. The Healthcare.gov site is like that first corporate Web experience. Everyone can see the glitches, time the slow response and generally find reasons to support or protest the current state of the health care Website based on their political leanings.
The main objective for the developers now is to prevent the current tech woes from touching off endless rounds of the blame game. You have technology capabilities, processes and an overarching architecture that need to be defined and adhered to.
While it is nice to think about startups or the big Web organizations coming to the rescue, the federal procurement and vendor authorization processes are going to preclude the newbies from coming in and doing so. The site will improve but don't expect a dramatic recovery before year's end.
This brings me back to the IRS. The complexity of the IRS regulations led to a very big cottage industry of tax consultants and services where taxpayers could walk in, drop off their bag of receipts and come back a week later to find it all sorted out.
I expect you will see the same thing with Healthcare.gov. Experts will form consultancies and companies aimed at helping the consumer assemble an insurance plan that strikes the best balance between cost and coverage. The idea that the Affordable Care Act would create its own Affordable Care Act industry of consultants and system integrators might be the first, measurable economic benefit to come from the Act's implementation.
Eric Lundquist is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Lundquist, who was editor-in-chief at eWEEK (previously PC WEEK) from 1996-2008 authored this article for eWEEK to share his thoughts on technology, products and services. No investment advice is offered in this article. All duties are disclaimed. Lundquist works separately for a private investment firm which may at any time invest in companies whose products are discussed in this article and no disclosure of securities transactions will be made.